Tip #4 Be Aware of Short-Game “Black Marks”

scorecardThe short game is crucial when it comes to scoring well in golf. We all know this. We’re told from the days when we first play how it all comes down to putting and chipping, and most of us know how it feels to get beat like a drum by some 80-year old father-in-law who can only hit the ball 150 yards from the tee, but who chips and putts like he sold his soul to the devil. Even when it comes to tour professionals, we recognize that the good putters and wedge players tend to show up on the money list.

But many golfers never fully discern the impact of short-game failures in their own games. Too many golfers relate success on the course to having a beautiful, fluid, powerful swing–and if they sense early in a round that the ball-striking is off, they often tend to check out of the round mentally, as if to say, “Well, there’s no way to score well with this kind of swing….”

Of course a good swing, and good ball-striking opens the door for good scoring, and takes pressure off the short-game (it’s generally a lot easier to score if we hit 13 greens instead of 8 greens in regulation), which introduces the “chicken or egg” discussion many golfers have about the way to lower their scores–if I hit straight, long drives and accurate irons, then I can score well, even if the short-game is not very sharp, right? On the other hand, a chipping and putting genius doesn’t need much accuracy or length in full shots, as displayed by many of the senior members at any club. The way a golfer prioritizes this long-game/short-game dilemma will largely determine his practice routine and his ability to improve over time.

As a teaching professional who has watched thousands of golfers struggle to conquer this game, I look at it like this: no matter how amazing a golfer’s swing and ball-striking, the full swing can never cover the sins of a terrible short-game (unless a golfer can routinely drive the green on par-4 holes, or hole shots from the fairway), but an amazing short game definitely has the possibility to cover the sins of a poor swing. Since scoring is defined by dropping the ball in the hole, and since dropping the ball in the hole almost always comes as a result of short-range shots, it’s only by reducing the number of short-range shots that most golfers can dramatically reduce their scores.

That’s why there are only two statistics I keep for myself, and that I consistently ask my clients to track. Score, and “black marks”. Black marks are my way of tracking the number of “extra” short-game shots in a round of golf and how they affect the final score. Here’s what a black mark is: any stroke taken after the second short-game shot, per hole. Basically, once you are approaching the green and have less than a full shot, the clock is ticking. You have two shots to hole the ball. Every shot after that is a short-game “black mark”. So, if you hit the green in regulation with a full shot, you have two putts to hole the ball without a black mark. If you miss the green, you have one chip or pitch, and one putt to hole the ball. If you get close to reaching a par-5 in two shots, you have to get up and down for birdie to avoid a black mark.

This sounds tough for most golfers, and unrealistic for high-handicappers, but the point is that the extra short-game shots are exactly the shots that make them high-handicappers. Even for beginners and people who play above double-bogey golf, generally 70-90% of their shots over par are black marks. They may not hit the ball very well, or far, and might lose some strokes by hitting a few shots out of play, but the fact remains that they generally reach the short-game zone in a reasonable number of shots and then take a pitch, a chip, and three putts to make their big number (three black marks on one hole!).

And as a golfer improves, the percentage of lost strokes that are black marks actually increases to 85-120% (meaning they could shoot under par by removing their black marks)! This is because a single-digit handicapper doesn’t lose too many balls, or hit too many out of bounds, so his lost shots tend to be failures to get up and down when he misses 6-8 greens per round, or doesn’t convert on reachable par-5′s.

A high handicapper will often average close to two black marks per hole (four total short-range shots per hole). This means if he shoots 108, he might have 32 black marks. In this case, 89% of his shots over par are black marks. If he cut them in half, he could shoot 92, and if he got rid of all of the black marks, he could shoot 76!

Personally, I might typically shoot 75 and have 6 black marks (despite the fact that the short-game could be considered my strength). This means that the rounds when my black marks disappear (which is very tough and rare) are under par, and possibly even in the 60′s.

If you want to have a full awareness of the short-game’s impact on your scoring, play several rounds and track your black marks. Take notice of how low your scores could be if you dropped almost all the black marks. And consider focusing your practice time and instruction on the parts of the game that will make the biggest difference to your scores!

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